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How to Be a Great Manager: Five Essential Skills to Master

The primary responsibility of any manager is to manage people, not products or projects. It all starts and ends with your staff or your employees. As Lee Iacocca said, “Managing is nothing more than motivating other people.” That’s absolutely right.

Yes, a manager’s job is to ensure productivity, that tasks are accomplished effectively. But how do they do that? Through positive employee engagement.Employees have to be developed, encouraged, motivated, and engaged. There’s no productivity without positivity.

Engaged employees are productive employees. It’s that simple. And it’s the manager’s job to ensure their continued engagement.

Great managers may be born, but they can certainly be made. Here are five essential skills that every manager should master:

  1. Develop great communication skills.

If you are not communicating well and in a way that draws people to you, creates good will, and inspires, then you will not succeed. You have to adapt your communication style to your people, not the other way around. Meet them where they are. Effective communicators use their emotional intelligence to determine what their people need. Learn to listen, learn to be attentive and reflective, and learn to communicate in the ways that best suit your employees’ styles.

There are lots of resources out there to help you develop good communication skills. I like this post on Forbes.com:


  1. Build and nurture relationships up, down, and across.

The workplace is a social system. Yes, you are skilled and trained and all that, but you get things done by working with other people, and that means developing genuine relationships with them.

If you are going to be a great manager you have to build relationships with your staff. The number one reason people leave their jobs is they don’t like their manager.

You also need to build relationships with those on your own management level and with those above you. Your personal success depends on how well your staff works, but it also depends a great deal on how well you collaborate with those on your level and with those above you. You are only as successful as you interrelate and collaborate with others, up, down, and across.

So, there are three levels of relationships to develop and foster:

  • First, manage down. This means to build relationships with those who work for you.
  • Second, manage across. This means to build relationships with your peers and colleagues.
  • Third, manage up. This means building effective relationships with the powers above you, so you can give your boss what she wants and needs, and you can give the organization what it wants and needs. It’s not about brown nosing. It’s about building a collaborative relationship with the powers that be.

You are in the middle. You have people below you and people above you. The best way to thrive and be successful is to build authentic, collaborative relationships up, down, and across. All sides need to feel they are heard and attended to. That’s your job.

  1. Reward and recognize staff, both as individuals and as a team.

People need to be rewarded and recognized in a genuine, authentic way. It’s challenging, because what motivates and is meaningful to some may not be to others.

The simplest thing to do is find out what is meaningful to your employees. It might be a simple public recognition of your team or someone’s efforts, an employee-of-the-month award, or donuts every Monday for your team. If people feel underappreciated they will stop being high performers. So find a way to appreciate and recognize them.

  1. Master Management 101, the basic management skills.

Good managers are flexible and adaptable, with good listening skills and high emotional intelligence. They also know the tools of the trade. These include:

  • Goal setting
  • Resource management
  • Time management
  • Conflict resolution
  • Holding employees accountable
  • Performance reviews
  • Creative problem solving
  • Running effective meetings
  • Interviewing, hiring, and firing

These skills can be learned easily, and you don’t need an MBA. If your firm offers management classes, leadership development, or executive coaching, jump at it. If not, learn on your own. There are a host of great books and websites out there (not to mention classes) to help you hone these basic management skills. These books are all great:

  • The Practice of Management, by Peter Drucker
  • In Search of Excellence, by Tom Peters
  • Don’t Follow Me: I’m the Leader, by D.R. Dungan
  • On Becoming A Leader, by Warren Bennis
  1. Build relationships, but not necessarily friendships.

This is a tricky one. You want people to like you, and you want to like them. But remember that you aren’t necessarily becoming friends with your employees. You aren’t establishing friendships, you are establishing good working relationships. Don’t go out partying with them. Don’t vacation with them. Don’t join their book clubs. If a genuine friendship ensues, great, but remember, you are their manager. They should look to you to lead, inspire, and motivate, not buy the next round of drinks, pick them up at the airport, or help them move into their new apartment.

Managing is tough. Not everyone is cut out for it. You have to play many roles, wear many hats, and balance many agendas. You’re a middleman, a boss, and an underling. But if you focus on positive employee engagement and developing productive relations up, down, and across your firm, you will be a great manager. 

Good luck! 

“Great managers are an organization’s glue. They create and hold together the scores of folks who power high-performing companies.”  ~ Tom Peters

“Lead and inspire people. Don’t try to manage and manipulate people. Inventories can be managed but people must be lead.”  ~ Ross Perot

Click here to see my Managing for Success segment on ABC 7! For more videos, visit our media page here.

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